Divorce denied: Bifurcated divorces not permissible under Iowa statute
Posted on 06/15/2015 at 07:23 AM by Mary Zambreno
The Supreme Court reversed the dissolution of a dying woman's marriage to her husband on the basis that a bifurcated divorce is not a legal option in Iowa. A bifurcation allows spouses to divorce before all the final details are completed. The Court grants the dissolution of the marriage first with issues of custody, visitation, child support, alimony, property division, and attorneys' fees to be resolved at a later time.
Some reasons for requesting a bifurcation are that one of the spouses wishes to remarry, or the wife is pregnant and the husband is not the biological father. In the case, In re Marriage of Thatcher, Susan and Ronald Thatcher were married for nearly 30 years with an adult daughter who was a full-time college student. In January 2013, Susan was diagnosed with cervical cancer with a one-year life expectancy. Eight months after discovery of her cancer, Susan filed for divorce. In her financial affidavit, she disclosed several life insurance policies, inherited assets, retirement accounts, and other assets that she owned jointly with Ronald. In November, Susan filed a motion to bifurcate the proceedings because it was not likely that she would survive long enough to be able to participate at trial and wanted to have her marriage dissolved before she died. Her doctors stated that her life expectancy at that point was limited from days to possibly weeks. Ronald resisted the bifurcation motion and argued that there was no legal basis to bifurcate the proceedings and that to do so would prejudice his rights because he would not have the opportunity to cross-examine Susan, he would lose health insurance and his status as beneficiary on her life insurance, and he would lose the right to file a joint tax return for that year. The district court granted the motion to bifurcate and ruled that the parties were restored to their rights as single persons. Ronald appealed. The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal and concluded that the decree was not final and appealable because the divorce was not entirely complete as a result of the pending issues of the property distribution.
The Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeals and stated that the bifurcated judgment was an appealable final order because it completely dissolved the parties' marriage. The Supreme Court also disagreed with the district court that the proceedings could be bifurcated. The Court examined Iowa Code Section 598.21 and concluded that the plain language of the statute requires a division of property contemporaneous with the decree of dissolution. Susan's estate was substituted in her place and argued that Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.914 permitted separate trials of any claim or separate issue. However, the Supreme Court disagreed and argued that such rule contemplated permissible bifurcated issues, such as orders dealing with temporary child support or resolving issues of validity of a prenuptial agreement.
The Court stated that this went beyond separating trials of particular issues and stated that the marital dissolution itself and the final division of marital property are inseparable parts of the main action that must be addressed together in the final judgment. Although the Court examined other states' statutes that both permitted and prohibited bifurcated divorces, and also examined the public policy arguments in favor of and against bifurcated divorces, the Court opined that the Iowa legislature is the appropriate body to make the policy judgments on whether to allow bifurcated divorces and, if so, under what conditions. For a complete copy of the text of the Thatcher opinion, please click here.
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